Can the Arizona Coyotes Be an Improved Team?

Mark BrownContributor ISeptember 11, 2014

Dave Tippett will try to have the Coyotes qualify for the playoff for the first time in three years.
Dave Tippett will try to have the Coyotes qualify for the playoff for the first time in three years.Getty Images/Christian Petersen

For a team that did not qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs over the past two years, challenges ahead for the Arizona Coyotes seem formidable.

New players in the house, key players recovering from significant injuries and illness and an unknown composition of lines are among the tests directly ahead for head coach Dave Tippett and Don Maloney, the team’s general manager.

Perhaps the most major issue facing the Coyotes remains their ability to stay relevant in the highly competitive NHL Western Conference. Only eight teams quality for postseason play, and several strong teams grew stronger over the summer.

Remember, the last four Stanley Cup winners all came from the Western Conference. The Los Angeles Kings and Chicago Blackhawks captured Lord Stanley’s hardware twice each in nearly the past half-decade.

Here at the advent of training camp, Tippett and his staff are assessing personnel and finding the best way to pull off victories on the ice. While the Coyotes may not have the most talented corps of players, Tippett hopes they will play the most intelligent hockey.

That assertion came across from Tippett in an exclusive one-on-one interview with Bleacher Report Wednesday afternoon.

The occasion was the official name change of the Coyotes’ home rink from Jobing.com Arena to Gila River Arena. Tippett, along with Maloney, team CEO Anthony LeBlanc, members of the Gila River Indian Community and political officials, braved the 100-degree heat and blazing desert sunshine to unveil a Gila River banner for the front of the arena.

Afterward, LeBlanc told reporters the permanent signage will be affixed by opening night, which is Thursday, October 9, when the Coyotes take on the Winnipeg Jets.

While the ceremony highlighted the partnership between the Coyotes and their corporate partners of the Gila River Indian Community, Tippet has a more immediate task. He emphasized the essential variable that may set the Coyotes apart from the majority of their Western Conference competition.

“We have to play hard hockey, and I don’t mean physical hockey,” he said. “It’s about playing smart hockey and playing well without the puck. Overall, the challenge is to win more hockey games, and there are ways to do that. From a coaching standpoint, it’s how well we position players for success.”

Last season, the Coyotes were on the verge of gaining a playoff spot.

Then, disaster.

After defeating the Devils 3-2 in the Prudential Center on March 27, the Coyotes then went winless in their next seven games and were eliminated from the playoffs in the penultimate game of the season. That winless run included a bitter 3-1 defeat to Minnesota on March 29 at home, and the Coyotes had a 1-0 lead in that one going into the third period.

That set players reeling and Tippett searching for answers.

Now, that’s ancient history, and Tippett has turned the page to a new season.

Several players have been skating informally at the Ice Den in Scottsdale, the Coyotes’ practice facility. That early work caught Tippett’s attention, and as far as the players’ approach, he likes what he sees.

“The attitude is where it should be,” he said. “The players are in great shape, and positions on this team are open. Whoever makes the final cut is the one who wins puck battles and survives the competition around the puck.”

With camp about to start, Tippett said it’s time to get down to serious business. One of his first priorities is to determine lines. While players like Mike Ribeiro, Radim Vrbata, Paul Bissonnette and Jeff Halpern are gone, the Coyotes have added three forwards in Joe Vitale, B.J. Crombeen and Sam Gagner.   

Rookies report Friday and skate for the first time Saturday. Veterans report next Thursday and have their initial practice Friday.

“The last two weeks here before camp is a time to get organized,” Tippett said. “You want to began to create lines and see what things fall into place.”

The task ahead will likely be filled with landmines and unknown obstacles. Yet, if Tippett can have his team play intelligent hockey and stay within his definition of “a hard game,” this could be a competitive team.

Mark Brown is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.